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Kathy and Jeff Foley pause March 7 with Gloria Payers, center, as Payers shops in a food pantry in Walthill that serves the Omaha and Winnebago reservations.

Couple grateful for St. Augustine missionary experience

Gloria Payers knows that when she shops at the thrift store at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Macy, volunteer Jeff Foley will help her find and carry diapers, clothes, shoes or other items she needs for the five grandchildren she is raising – or just listen as she talks about her problems.
 
Payers knows that when she has a need, whether she is at the store or elsewhere, Foley and his wife, Kathy, will rush to help.
 
Three years ago the Foleys put their lives in Silver Springs, Md., on hold to be lay missionaries at St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago. They’ve lived at the mission and worked wherever needed.
 
“They’re just there – helping, helping,” Payers said of the Foleys.
 
Kathy has worked as a bookkeeper for the mission’s business office and Jeff has devoted a lot of time to the mission’s outreach, such as helping found the thrift store and setting it up twice a month. They also helped with marriage preparation and bringing people into the church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
 
And they do so much more, said Father Mark Beran, director of the mission and pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Winnebago, St. Cornelius Parish in Homer, St. Joseph Parish in Walthill and Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Macy.
 
“With just about everything here, they’ve helped,” he said. Tasks have ranged from pitching in at a food pantry in Walthill to selling Indian corn so people could attend a Tekakwitha Conference for indigenous Catholics of North America.
 
But the Foleys will return home in July to be with their children and grandchildren and find new ways to serve the church.
 
The couple are “somewhat irreplaceable,” Father Beran said, but he hopes others will follow their example and dedicate part of their lives to the mission – perhaps during their retirement, like the Foleys. Jeff said someone young and single, who wants to give to church and society, might also be a good fit – and it would be an opportunity for growth.
 
The mission will be flexible about duties and welcome part-time volunteers, too, Father Beran said. It can provide free room and board, but if people live in the area, they could travel back and forth from their homes, he said.
 
“We’re open to anyone … who has a heart of faith and the heart to serve,” he said.
 
Kathy Foley said many members of the Omaha and Winnebago tribes live in “abject poverty” and sometimes struggle with alcoholism, drug abuse and family dysfunction. But she sees a lot of beauty in their lives, too, particularly the way they fight to maintain their Native American culture, keep family together and take care of each other across generations.
 
“There are historical reasons for their problems,” Kathy said. And she’s inspired by the way tribe members stay upbeat despite their woes. 
 
That devotion to family and the importance of the grandparents’ role of “imparting culture, traditions and values” is something the Foleys have taken to heart and it is one reason they want to return to their own family, Kathy said. “That kind of hit home.”
 
They will return to five of their six children who live near their Maryland home and four grandsons. The way back will be more of a road trip, Jeff Foley said, and in coming months they will discern new ways to serve the church and others. 
 
For Kathy, that includes finding a job she hopes will be connected to the church, possibly for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., or the nearby U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
 
Jeff said he’ll look for more volunteer work, possibly in prison ministry or hospice care. And they will find ways to volunteer together, Kathy said.
 
They also plan to continue to help the St. Augustine mission, but from a distance.
 
Jeff said he will miss working with the mission staff, priests and religious sisters, volunteers and the people of the area. And he will miss the beautiful view from their temporary home in Winnebago.
 
“We’ve gotten more out of it than what we put in, that’s for sure,” Jeff Foley said of their mission work.
 
Payers, 72, said the Foleys have helped her care for her grandchildren – ages 18 months, 2, 5, 12, 17 and 19 – and she will miss the couple.
 
“I don’t know who they’ll get to replace them, but I hope they’re like the Foleys.”
 

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